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Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty

In Books on April 24, 2012 at 5:34 pm

This article was first published by openDemocracy on 07 Apr 2012

‘Treat them as children. Make them do what we know is for their benefit as well as our own, and all difficulties in China are at an end.’

Captain Osborn, quoted in Age of Capital, Eric Hobsbawm

‘A people’s capacity to govern itself democratically is thus proportionate to the degree of its understanding of the structure and functioning of the whole social body… The new economic system which has taken the place of the old is even more incomprehensible to them… It will probably be several generations before the people manage to understand the new state of affairs… Until then, however, a democratic form of government is impossible…’

N.S. Rubashov’s diary, Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler

The first period of the Occupy movement has come to a close. Much has been written regarding its effects and what direction it might take. Dan Hind’s Common Sense is a valuable, provocative addition to this literature which places the movement – and in particular its democratic method – in context before mapping out the author’s hopes for where this might lead.

The fifty-five page pamphlet makes the case that we are currently governed by an impenetrable elite, whom we allow to control us because of our unshaken belief in that which we take for granted, that which we see as common sense. Hind directly links his pamphlet to Thomas Paine’s book of the same name, saying that he aims for a similar upheaval of that which we accept without questioning. Of course, in Thomas Paine’s case, this led to revolution. Hind too hopes for a kind of revolution.

In elegantly persuasive, concise prose, without reference to jargon or anachronism, he destroys the ‘cult of the market’. First, he describes how it purports to work: ‘markets were a great levelling power,’ ‘the customer has become the chairman of the board,’ ‘in a marketplace, every person gets a vote every day.’ He then describes how it does work: ‘a small number of interlocking companies dominate the systems of credit and production’, their tendrils infiltrating the state to force its complicity and the obedience of the worker.

After the market, he destroys the ‘cult of the expert’. Like Terry Eagleton’s history of the critic, he finds its origins in the bourgeois revolutions of post-Enlightenment Europe, the ‘clever, highly educated and energetic expert’ able to disinterestedly parse the scrolls in search of the ‘truth’ and the common good. As the market invaded all aspects of culture, the cult of the expert became less that of the civil servant or the academic, and more that of the banker (or the corporate-funded academic). The state was rolled back, the markets took over. ‘The new experts told politicians that they could no longer presume to second guess the workings of supply and demand. The bond markets became objects of awed veneration. Former Goldman Sachs employees moved into government. When they did so it was called technocracy.’

For some time now I have been considering the similarities in outlook between such technocrats and N.S. Rubashov in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. The same arrogance, the same self-belief, the same dismissal of the masses as not ready, not adequately intelligent/ informed/ discerning to make the correct decisions. In short we, the masses, can not be trusted. The experts must make the world for us, they must design it, build it and modify it. For us. To paraphrase Senator Gracchus in the film, Gladiator, they may not be men of the people, but they do try to be men for the people.

A discussion of democracy and freedom ensues, with a powerful description of positive and negative freedoms, and the necessity of both in a functioning democracy. Hind argues that our positive freedoms have been removed as the experts of the market have assumed complete control of our lives. And that what we perceive as common sense has been used as argument to allow them to do so.

He offers specific evidence to puncture the cult in the form of quotations from those in seats of power before the global financial crisis, many of whom are still in power. These are the people to whom Paul Krugman refers as ‘Very Important People‘. Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King and Gordon Brown are all quoted, they are all shown to be ridiculous, and Hind asks why we are still listening to them.

So if the markets and the experts are ridiculous, then who can and should govern us? Hind’s answer is us. We should govern ourselves and be guided by ourselves, not necessarily in the complete absence of experts, but certainly in the knowledge that the opinion of one human being is no more valid than that of another, no matter his or her background, education or wealth. ‘The monopoly on public speech enjoyed by politicians, journalists and those who hold senior positions in powerful organisations must be broken.’

For evidence of our ability to govern ourselves, Hind finds inspiration in the Occupy movement, ‘The occupations of the last year have shown us that people are capable of awesome sophistication once they start listening to one another.’ He invokes the debating rules and norms of the assembly, arguing that they give equal voice to all participants, unlike our current system of democracy. ‘By acting as though they mattered, they discovered what had always been true – that the assembly of people is the beginning of power.’

To those who bemoan the inefficiency of the assembly system, its inability to come to any firm decisions, Hind argues that this is how democracy should and must be – a messy and sometimes unavoidably frustrating process. This is not a children’s party. His depiction is not rosy. His is not a determinist eschatology, not a path of progress towards utopia, but instead a future in which an individual can expect ‘some share of power in a permanently unfinished and unsatisfactory project of governing ourselves.’ The important factor here is that each share will be equal for all members of that society, regardless of class, creed, age or gender. Every person will be empowered by participation, therefore reclaiming their positive freedom without renouncing their negative freedom. Through this, we will build a ‘truly common sense’.

There are problems with the piece. One is unreferenced conjecture regarding the current prevalence of mental health problems in the UK. Hind hypothesises that this is due to the restriction of our positive freedoms and that the empowerment of the masses may offer a societal cure. While this may be possible, it is inessential to the overall argument, but I fear there may be some who seize on it as fanciful in order to the discredit the overall thesis.

The ideas here are not all new, but the synthesis into a cogent argument is stirring and exciting. The pamphlet is lucid, succinct and devoid of academic or activist idiom. His analysis of the Occupy movement avoids what Slavoj Zizek called falling ‘in love with themselves‘ and instead calls for renewed action. As someone who has missed the assemblies so far, I look forward to discovering their possibilities and frustrations. The tangents, by-laws and overarching progressions of government can be ours to explore.


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